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Sum of All Fears

Paramount // PG-13 // October 29, 2002
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Aaron Beierle | posted October 25, 2002 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

"The Sum of All Fears" opened production with an unusual casting decision. Harrison Ford was not interested and, instead of going with someone of equal age and physical status, the decision was made to go with the considerably younger Ben Affleck. Affleck remained the choice, even if his age would make little sense in terms of the Jack Ryan character that Ford and Alec Baldwin had played prior. Phil Alden Robinson ("Field of Dreams") also seemed an odd choice as director in an age when someone along the lines of a Tony Scott or Jonathan Mostow might have lead the list of possibilities.

As "The Sum of All Fears" completed production and awaited release, it became something far more frighteningly real and terrifying after 9/11. The film, whose plot revolves around a lost nuclear weapon and how it falls into the wrong hands, includes the deeply disturbing and saddening image of a nuclear blast (which, oddly enough, was in every single trailer and TV ad). During the months that the film was delayed, there was even talk on several internet film sites of the possibility that the film would never be released or would be released several years away.

"Fears" somewhat awkwardly deposits Affleck in the role of Ryan, despite the oddness of the character now suddenly becoming many years younger. The film revolves around Neo-Nazis getting a hold of a lost nuclear weapon and trying to use it in order to turn the United States and Russia against one another, as the US would think that Russia was the one who attacked.

Ryan - in this film - is a relatively new analyst and historian who "just writes reports", but finds himself in the midst of actual missions when those around him, including CIA director Cabot (Morgan Freeman) realizes he knows considerably more about Russia than they'd otherwise have thought. Soon enough, the young Ryan is out on a mission with actual spy John Clark (Liev Schreiber, making a very interesting character out of only a little bit of screen time). Aside from said mission, the first 45-minutes of "Sum of All Fears" offers a surprising amount of dialogue-driven scenes of people sitting around talking about political affairs. The audience is not brought in on quite enough of these events and these scenes are not always as tense examples of politcal chess as they could have been. In fact, some of them start to become tedious. There's also the absurd inclusion of otherwise fine actress Bridget Moynahan ("Serendipity") as the Affleck character's utterly unnecessary love interest.

The film's second half, after the aftermath of the film's very disturbing main sequence, becomes a more tense and suspenseful thriller that has the Ryan character attempting to get word to the president to prove his case about who was responsible. "The Sum of All Fears" does have tense stretches, especially in the second half, but the film's screenplay by the duo of Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne seemingly have not been able to compress the book's hundreds of pages down well-enough. Affleck's Ryan is really the only focus in a picture composed of characters on the outer edges that seem more interesting (Schreiber's spy), but hardly get any notice. Even Affleck's Ryan character is not developed particularly well. And, after the somewhat rushed last quarter (where, as per usual in this kind of film, no one wants to listen to what Ryan has to say), the ludicrous romance returns for a rather absurd ending.

Although Affleck's acting skills have often been called into question, the actor's performances in "Bounce" and "Changing Lanes" showed more maturity and skill than many previously thought him capable of. While he still doesn't seem like the right choice for this role and doesn't always convince, he seems to at least be trying - if not always succeeding. An incredible set of supportng performers - Morgan Freeman, Phillip Baker Hall, Ron Rifkin and others - are largely underused in minor roles.

Technically, the film is about all that can be expected from a big-budget thriller. John Lindley's scope cinematography is respectable and really never calls much attention to itself, while editing and production design are also high-level. The only complaint I have is with Jerry Goldsmith's score. While I've been a fan of much of Goldsmith's prior work, this kind of ominous, heavy score not only sounds too familiar (Hans Zimmer did this score far better in "Crimson Tide"), but lacks the intensity and push needed for this kind of film. I would have liked to have heard something along the lines of Harry Gregson-Williams' "Spy Game" score, although maybe with less electronic backing.

Overall, I felt "Sum of All Fears" remained an average thriller. It generates suspense, but doesn't always hold it, especially with some scenes that don't seem believable (see Clancy's commentary for the differences between film & reality). While I haven't read the book, it also just feels as if there's too much missing in the translation between book and screenplay. While I'm probably going to be incorrect, I don't see the Jack Ryan character continuing on-screen in future films.


VIDEO: "The Sum of All Fears" is presented by Paramount in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Although cinematographer John Lindley's experience with several Nora Ephron movies (and a few of Alden Robinson's earlier works, such as "Field of Dreams") would not seem to indicate his skill filming a large-scale political thriller, he provides fine work here. Paramount does justice to the film's imagery, as well, offering one of their finest recent transfers of a major theatrical release.

Sharpness and detail are superb, as the film's presentation offers consistently crisp imagery and fine detail, not to mention respectable depth to the image. Problems - including a touch of edge enhancement and a couple of very minor artifacts - are not very noticable. The print used is also in top-notch shape, with only a few little specks during the opening and minimal visible wear elsewhere.

Colors are vividly presented, with nicely saturated colors and no smearing. Black level also remained solid, while flesh tones looked accurate and natural. Overall, quite a good effort.

SOUND: "The Sum of All Fears" is presented by Paramount in Dolby Digital 5.1. While several sequences in the second half provide a more aggressive audio experience, the majority of the first half of the film is a more dialogue-driven, front-heavy sound experience. Goldsmith's score gets a fair amount of presence but never really fills the room, while sound effects, dialogue and music remained clear.

MENUS: An animated, if rather standard, animated main menu.


Commentaries: The main supplements included in "The Sum of All Fears" DVD are two commentaries: One with director Phil Alden Robinson and cinematographer John Lindley and the other with Alden Robinson and novelist Tom Clancy. Both duos are recorded together and I browsed through both tracks. While it's a disapointment that Affleck isn't involved in either track, it's Clancy's remarkably detailed discussion of military background that provides the most fascinating material. Clancy also points out (in no uncertain terms) quite a bit of interesting details about the different reality of some of the kind of events that are shown in the film. In addition, while Clancy jokes about the director "ignoring" the novel (supposedly there are considerable changes between the novel and film), there's an underlying feeling that he may not be entirely pleased with the all the differences. Clancy's also surprisingly funny now and then throughout the commentary. The other commentary with Lindley does focus more on production and technical information. Both tracks are interesting, enjoyable and are worthwhile listening, although the Clancy track is the one of the two I'd recommend most.

A Cautionary Tale: This section is split into two featurettes, Casting (13 minutes) and Production (17 minutes). It seems a bit like both featurettes were maybe both part of a whole, but split into two for this release. "Casting" starts off as a potentially interesting discussion of changing the Ryan character younger, but then turns into a too praise-heavy chat about how thrilled everyone was to work on the picture and with each other. "Production" is considerably more interesting, as the filmmakers discuss the development of this "new" Ryan character and the film, as well as the thoughts of Alden Robinson and others in regards to approaching this feature.

Also: Rounding out the disc are five well-produced short featurettes where the film's visual effects artists lead the viewer through the production of the effects in those sequences. Also, there's the film's theatrical trailer (Dolby Digital 5.1 & 2.0/1.85:1).

Final Thoughts: "Sum of All Fears" is an occasionally effective thriller that suffers from not enough character development, a slow start and the choice of offering a younger Ryan character - a move that doesn't work terribly well. Paramount's DVD edition provides very good audio/video and a set of generally well-done supplements. A renter for those who haven't seen it and are interested, while those who are already fans of the film might want to consider a purchase.

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